Sacro Monte di Varese is one of the nine sacred mountains of Northern Italy and consists of a holy path and a charming medieval village.

A day trip to Sacro Monte di Varese on Pinteresr

On Saturday I took a day trip to Varese to explore the Sacro Monte, one of the nine sacred mounts lying at the foothills of the Alps. These are devotional paths that were created in the XVI and XVII centuries with the idea of offering an alternative pilgrimage route to that in the Holy Land, which was becoming more and more difficult due to the political events of the time. Their creation was strongly supported also by the Bishops of Milan, who believed that these pilgrimage sites could become a powerful means to repel the influence of the Protestant reform that was spreading in Europe.

In addition to their religious significance, these Sacred Mountains have a rich artistic and architectural value that makes these places appealing even to those without an interest in religion. Also, the paths are harmoniously integrated in the surrounding natural landscape made of gorgeous mountain ranges, woods and lakes, thus creating a peaceful and relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. It’s for all these reasons that the Sacred Mounts of Piemonte and Lombardia were registered in the Unesco World Heritage List in 2003.

The Sacro Monte of Varese is located within the the Campo dei Fiori Regional Park and its roots date all the way back to the IV century when Saint Ambrose built a chapel to celebrate the victory against the Arian heresy.    

How to get to Sacro Monte di Varese

Reaching the Sacro Monte di Varese is easy and you can visit the site as a day trip from Milan. There are several trains departing from Milano Porta Garibaldi Passante station during the day and reaching Varese in about an hour, you can check the timetable on the Trenitalia website.

Once in Varese, you can catch the city bus Line C from the train station up to the Prima Cappella (First Chapel) bus stop at the beginning of the Chapels Path. You’ll find yourself in a little piazza, just take the stairs and continue to the right, you’ll get to the first chapel in a couple of minutes. The bus ticket costs €1.40, you can buy it in any tabaccheria around town or directly through the machine on the bus (have exact amount ready, no change given).

The funicular of Santa Maria del Monte near VareseIf you don’t like the idea of climbing all the way up, then consider visiting the Sacro Monte over the weekend, when there’s a convenient funicular service running between the parking lot at the first chapel and the village of Santa Maria del Monte. The funicular opens between 10:00 am and 7:00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays and the ride is included in the bus ticket (if you don’t have a bus ticket, it’s gonna cost you €1).

The closest airport is Milan Malpensa and the drive to Sacro Monte only takes about 45 minutes. You can leave the car at the parking lot near the first chapel. However, I suggest to park in Varese city centre and then catch the bus, as I saw that parking space is pretty limited.

The Chapels’ Trail of Sacro Monte di Varese

The Sacro Monte di Varese consists of a wide, cobbled pathway about 2km long and punctuated by 14 chapels that depict scenes from the life of Jesus and Mary, the so-called Mysteries of the Rosary.

The Chapels Trail at the Sacro Monte di VareseThe religious episodes are represented through the use of frescoes and beautiful clay statues. It’s not possible to go inside the chapels, but you can press a button to light up the interior and see the artworks through the windows.

The interior of a chapel at Sacro Monte di VareseAfter the 14th chapel there’s a ramp leading to the village and the Sanctuary, containing the 15th and last mystery.

The Chapels Train at Sacro Monte di VareseThe trail is always accessible and open to the public. It took me about one and a half hours to complete the path and I stopped several times to take pictures and have a break, because it was hot and rather steep in some points. But then, hey, isn’t the way to paradise an uphill climb?!

The village of Santa Maria del Monte

The Chapels’ Trail ends in Santa Maria del Monte, a picturesque village located about 900 metres above sea level. It’s a maze of little cobbled lanes, arcades and flowered balconies that create a truly enchanting atmosphere. There are also some great viewpoints spread around the village offering fantastic views over the Alps and the lakes.

The village of Santa Maria del Monte near VareseThe most important landmark in the village is the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte overlooking Piazza Paolo VI. It’s quite small in size but rich in artistic treasures, with an impressive Baroque marble altar featuring an ancient wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. The origin of this church dates back to the VIII century and later underwent a series of reconstructions and restorations.

The Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte in VareseNext to the Sanctuary lies the Convent of the Romite Ambrosiane nuns, which was founded by Caterina of Pallanza and Giuliana Puricelli in 1474. Nuns still live here and spend their day praying and studying. Visits to the convent are not allowed though, since the nuns belong to a secluded order.

One thing not to miss when visiting the Sanctuary is the small Crypt carved into rock, where a recent restoration brought to life some fantastic frescoes probably dating back to the XIV and XV centuries, as well as other significant archeological findings. 

The crypt of the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte in VareseWhile wandering through the village, look for the old public wash-house, which was built towards the end of the XIX century to cope with the increasing number of pilgrims flocking to the village.

The ancient wash-house in Santa Maria del Monte near VareseThe museums of Santa Maria del Monte

There are a couple of interesting museums to visit in Santa Maria del Monte. The first one is the Baroffio Museum, right next to the Sanctuary. It’s a little museum created to host the treasures that Baron Giuseppe Baroffio Dall’Aglio left to the Sanctuary upon his death.

The terrace of the Baroffio Museum in Santa Maria del Monte near VareseIt welcomes visitors with a beautiful terrace overlooking the lakes, while inside there are three floors of interesting paintings, sculptures and antique furniture. I particularly liked the Dutch and Flemish paintings, such as the Gypsy with the Tambourine by Michael Sweerts.

Gypsy with Tambourine at the Baroffio Museum in Santa Maria del Monte near VareseFun fact: in this museum you can even see the remains of a crocodile, who was the protagonist of a curious local fact in the XVIII century!

The other museum in the village is the Pogliaghi Museum, located before the monumental fountain of Moses. Lodovico Pogliaghi was an Italian sculptor and painter who fell in love with the beauty and tranquillity of Santa Maria del Monte while working on the restoration of the chapels in 1885.

The Pogliaghi Museum in Santa Maria del Monte near VareseHe bought some land and built this villa, where he lived until his death, and filled it with an incredible collection of over 1,500 artworks gathered around the world, spanning from Egyptian and Roman artifacts to Chinese vases, sculptures of Giambologna and even a sketch by Bernini. The highlight of the visit is the plaster of the main portal of the Duomo of Milan, that he had been commissioned to design. 

The Pogliaghi Museum in Santa Maria del Monte near VareseBoth museums have limited opening times so check them before your trip. They can be visited between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays. The Baroffio Museum is open also 2:00-6:00 pm on Wednesdays and Fridays, while the House-Museum Lodovico Pogliaghi can be accessed also 6:30-10:30 pm on Fridays during the summer.

Places to fuel up after the Chapels’ Trail hike

Santa Maria del Monte is tiny but there are a number of interesting restaurants and cafés to check out. At the end of the holy path, before entering the village, I suggest to take a break at Montorfano, a café and restaurant with a lovely terrace overlooking the 14th chapel and the surrounding landscape. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly impressed with their service, but sipping a cold juice with that beautiful view in front of me made up for it!

The view from Montorfano café in Santa Maria del Monte near VareseOne place you absolutely have to see, even just from the outside, is Al Borducan. It was built in the 1920’s and boasts a super pretty stone façade with cream and green decorations. It offers also lodging and oozes romance and charm – have a look at their website for some beautiful night shots! Oh, and this place has also its own signature liqueur called Borducan, an infusion of herbs and oranges invented here in 1872. Throw away the map and follow the 1920’s tunes you’ll hear in the background – they come from there!

Al Borducan in Santa Maria del Monte near VareseAnother great location is Albergo Colonne, a restaurant with lodging facilities and a lovely veranda, while if you’re looking for a simpler meal of smoothies and panini then head to Il Convivio.

Useful tips

  • Expect the Chapels’ Trail and the visit to the village of Santa Maria del Monte to take at least half a day; I suggest to start the hike in the early morning to fully enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of the place
  • If you’re planning to visit both the two museums and the crypt (which I highly recommend!), then ask for a combined ticket: it costs €12, while the three single tickets would total €16
  • Check the official website of Sacro Monte di Varese for further information and updates: www.sacromontedivarese.it

Until next time,

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18 Comments

Anda 16 July 2019 at 23:47

I’ll have to confess that I’ve never heard of Sacro Monte. It looks indeed like the perfect place for pilgrimage. So quietly retreated at the foot of the Alps! We only spent a day in Milan, but I’d love to return to the city someday and hopefully have more time to see this beautiful place too.

    Val 17 July 2019 at 11:40

    It’s a beautiful place, no matter you are religious or not, and the village at the end of the trail is super cute!

Eunice Tan 17 July 2019 at 14:46

What a gem just over an hour from the city and airport! Even for the non-religious, the place makes for a lovely hike. The views are amazing and the church is simply inspiring. Will love to visit one day

    Val 20 July 2019 at 15:24

    Hope you’ll make it there one day Eunice, it’s truly a little gem!

Mijia Eggers 17 July 2019 at 18:37

The frescoes and beautiful clay statues have very rich colours. It seems to be a nice day trip destination. The view is nice and I just realized it is so close to the Switzerland border. I will consider to see it if I am near that area!

    Val 20 July 2019 at 15:23

    You’re right Mijia, it’s pretty close to the Swiss borer too 🙂

Elizabeth 17 July 2019 at 19:02

I was just in northern Italy, but didn’t hear about the Sacro Monte di Varese. There are so many blog posts about Venice, Rome, Florence and all the “popular” cities. I love hearing about other lesser known parts of Italy. I usually like the exercise of walking, but I find funiculars really fun! The village of Santa Maria del Monte does sound really enchanting with the cobblestone streets and the views.

    Val 20 July 2019 at 15:20

    A good reason to come back then 😉 It’s such a shame that most of the Italy travel literature out there is limited to the big, popular locations, because the beauty of Italy is also and particularly in these gems!

Medha 18 July 2019 at 05:18

Santa Maria del Monte looks absolutely amazing! I visited some medieval villages in Italy long ago and I don’t think I’ve ever found anything more charming! Happy to read about Sacro Monte di Varese because I plan to return to Italy sometime soon and Milan was already on my list of places to visit, I’d be happy to take a day trip to this lovely place!

    Val 20 July 2019 at 15:18

    That would be great Medha, let me know if you manage to visit!

Ami Bhat 18 July 2019 at 14:39

Santa Maria del Monte looks so quaint and gorgeous. I am in love with its description and pictures. I also, like the Chapel work for the gorgeous architecture. Loved the use of statues to depict various stories. You definitely have shared a gem of a place.

    Val 20 July 2019 at 15:17

    Thank you so much Ami!!

Annick Lenoir-Peek 19 July 2019 at 04:54

I’d never heard of Santa Maria Del Monte but you made me feel like I was there. I loved hearing about the history since it explains so much of what we’re seeing during travel. This is a great day trip from Milan but if my hip is acting up, I might wait until the weekend to take the funicular. I only ever see the stations of the cross during Easter (on on church walls) and think this trail would be amazing!

    Val 20 July 2019 at 15:17

    I love to escape there when I need some peace and quiet 🙂

Yukti Agrawal 20 July 2019 at 10:00

I never knew about day trips to Varese from Milan. This trip is hidden gem and less crowded from Milan. I loved the idea of a chapel trail. It would be great to have some snacks at Montorfano overlooking the chapels and the lovely landscape. Thanks for sharing all details about this hidden gem in Italy!

    Val 20 July 2019 at 15:15

    Thank you Yukti, this is surely a fantastic day trip from Milan!

Dina 21 July 2019 at 14:07

Thanks for putting Santa Maria del Monte on my radar! I love the whole vibe of the place – how peaceful and at one with nature it feels. The Chapels Trail hike sounds gorgeous – hopefully it doesn’t get overcrowded with tourists anytime soon!

    Val 23 July 2019 at 20:36

    I hope you’ll be able to visit it one day Dina! xx

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Ciao! I’m Val

Ciao! I’m Val

Ciao! I'm Valentina, an Italian blogger with a huge passion for my country, its culture and traditions. My Italian Diaries is the online space where I share my expert knowledge of itineraries, activities and off-the-beaten path places to help you experience the best of Italy like a local.

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